American playwright Beth Henley's play Impossible Marriage was first produced on stage by the Roundabout Theater Company in New York City in October 1998. It was published in the same year in a hardcover edition by Stage & Screen, and appeared the following year in a paperback edition from Dramatists Play Service. Impossible Marriage was also included in the collection Beth Henley: Collected Plays Volume II: 1990-1999, published by Smith & Kraus in 2000.
Impossible Marriage is one of many Southern-flavored plays by Henley that reflect her Mississippi upbringing. The play deals with an impending, ill-fated wedding set at a country estate in Savannah, Georgia. It is a melodramatic black comedy of manners, full of over-blown gestures and witty observations, and is reminiscent of the plays of the nineteenth-century Irish author Oscar Wilde. In its simultaneous comedy and seriousness, Impossible Marriage also has a flavor of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, whom Henley has cited as an influence on her work. The main theme of the play is the conflict between civilization and passion. While critics consider it to be of secondary importance to Henley's best-known play, Crimes of the Heart (first produced in 1979), Impossible Marriage has proved a popular success.
Beth Henley was born Elizabeth Becker Henley on May 8, 1952, in Jackson, Mississippi, the second of four daughters of Charles Boyce, an attorney and Mississippi state senator, and Elizabeth Josephine Henley, an actress. Inspired by watching her mother rehearse for plays, the young Henley intended to become an actress. With this goal in mind, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, in 1974.
While at college, Henley joined an acting group and wrote her first play, Am I Blue, which was produced at the university's Margo Jones Theatre in 1973 and published by Dramatists Play Service in 1982. From 1974 to 1975 Henley taught drama at the Dallas Minority Repertory Theatre. In 1975, she began graduate study in the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Illinois, Urbana. However, she never completed the program. Instead, in 1976, she moved to Los Angeles to live with actor and director Stephen Tobolowsky, with whom she would later collaborate on the screenplay for True Stories (released by Warner Bros. in 1986). Unsuccessful in finding acting roles, she threw herself into playwriting.
In 1978, Henley submitted a three-act play, Crimes of the Heart, to the Great American Play Contest sponsored by the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky. Based on Chekhov's play The Three Sisters, Crimes of the Heart is a black comedy about three sisters living in a small Southern town. It won the contest and was staged at the theater to considerable critical and popular acclaim. Nominated for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award in 1979, the play was produced on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre and published by Dramatists Play Service in 1981. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best new American play, the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and a Tony nomination for best play, all in 1981. Many consider it to be her masterpiece.
Henley later adapted the play for a film version, also called Crimes of the Heart (released in 1986 by De Laurentiis Entertainment). The film received an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay (1986).
Henley's next play was The Miss Firecracker Contest. The play was first produced in Los Angeles in 1980 and was published by Dramatists Play Service in 1985. Henley later adapted the play into a screenplay for a film, released as Miss Firecracker by Corsair Pictures in 1988.
Other plays by Henley include The Lucky Spot, produced in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 1986 and on Broadway in 1987, and published by the Dramatists Play Service in 1987; and Abundance, produced in Los Angeles in 1989 and published by the Dramatists Play Service in 1990.
Henley wrote Impossible Marriage while she was pregnant. The play was first produced on stage by Roundabout Theater Company in New York City in October 1998 and was published by Stage & Screen in the same year. In the original production, the part of Floral was played by Holly Hunter, who has appeared in several of Henley's stage plays and in the film Miss Firecracker.
Henley's later plays include Sisters of the Winter Madrigal, published by Dramatists Play Service in 2001, and Signature, published by Dramatists Play Service in 2003.
As of July 2008, Henley lives in Los Angeles, California. She has one son, Patrick.
Impossible Marriage opens in the garden of Kandall Kingsley. Sidney Lunt, son of the groom, enters and swipes at a row of flowers with his cane. Floral appears, heavily pregnant and upset. Kandall follows and Floral complains that she swept up the leaves but no one noticed. Floral's husband Jonsey enters. He has brought Floral chocolates to satisfy her pregnancy cravings. They wonder why they have not heard from the groom when the wedding is tomorrow. Floral and Kandall agree that the match between Pandora and Edvard is a bad one.
Pandora, in an exuberant mood, enters with the Reverend Jonathan Larence, who is to perform the ceremony. She is pleased that Edvard's son Sidney has arrived, as none of Edvard's children has spoken to him since his divorce. The Reverend congratulates Floral and Jonsey on Floral's pregnancy. Floral seems embarrassed.
Pandora announces that she will wear a pair of blue wings at her wedding. Changing the subject, Kandall asks the Reverend about his recent stay in Nigeria. Pandora says he is a good man, which he strenuously denies.
The company goes off for refreshments at the manor, leaving Floral and Pandora alone. Floral asks Pandora why she is marrying Edvard, who is over twice her age, short-sighted, a womanizer, and probably a drunk. Pandora insists that he is all she desires, but admits to doubts over his age. Floral predicts that she will end up being his nursemaid. Pandora, alarmed, asks Floral to break off her engagement. Floral tells Pandora she must make the decision. Pandora tries to settle the question by playing the traditional game of pulling the petals off a flower one by one. The verdict is that she will not marry Edvard.
Kandall returns and Floral tells her that the wedding is off. Kandall's first concern is to pick up the wedding cake to remove it from the sight of the townspeople, who would view it as a symbol of her family's impetuousness. Kandall and Pandora leave to collect the cake.
Jonsey enters and Floral tells him that Pandora is breaking off the engagement. Jonsey is shocked. Jonsey lovingly addresses Floral as his dear wife and the mother-to-be of his child. Floral is more interested in summoning Edvard so that she can break the bad news to him. Edvard arrives and apologizes for being late, explaining that he was in a hotel fire. Floral tells him that Pandora wants to call off the wedding. Edvard is distraught. Pandora rushes in and greets him adoringly. Unable to bear Edvard's crying, she dismisses her doubts as natural pre-wedding jitters and accuses Floral of acting out of jealousy. Pandora and Edvard go off to the woods.
Kandall returns and reports that Pandora threw herself out of the moving car on their way to pick up the cake when she heard Edvard call her name. Floral comforts herself with the thought that Pandora can get a divorce, but Kandall replies that there is no precedent in the family. Kandall wishes that Edvard would conveniently die.
Sidney enters and Kandall claims the family is thrilled about the wedding. Sidney says that marriage is an outdated institution. He admits that he has never been in love. He has only come to deliver a private message to his father. Kandall takes him to find Edvard.
The Reverend enters. He and Floral discuss sincerity, which they agree is difficult to discern. Floral leaves. Pandora and Edvard enter from the woods. Kandall, Sidney, and Jonsey enter from the manor. Kandall greets Edvard effusively as a man of "global renown." Edvard does not recognize Sidney, saying that he is too old to be his son. Sidney gives Edvard a note from Margaret in which she threatens to kill herself if he marries Pandora. Edvard is tormented by his dilemma: if he marries Pandora, Margaret will kill herself, but if he calls off the wedding, he will be scorned by Pandora for capitulating to blackmail. Edvard leaves.
Jonsey enters from the woods and says that he has seen three red cardinals in the grove. Jonsey tells Sidney that when he was young he witnessed his father drowning in a boating accident.
It is night. Pandora enters, dancing ecstatically. She calls to Edvard offstage to join her, but being short-sighted, he cannot see in the dark. Kandall asks the Reverend to bring candelabras. Jonsey, Kandall, Floral, and Edvard enter. Pandora again asks Edvard to dance with her, but he declines as he has eaten too much. Jonsey dances with her, and everyone praises his dancing and handsome looks. Pandora twirls herself into Edvard's arms and says that her love for him will last forever. Edvard points out that this is not necessarily so: his first marriage did not last forever. Pandora says that was because it was not a good marriage, but Edvard says it was good, until he met Pandora.
Floral reminisces about a bowl of goldfish that Pandora kept as a child. One of the fish died because she never fed them, but she refused to throw it away and the stench of rotting fish filled the house. Pandora could not understand why she had to throw out a fish just because it was dead, as she still loved it. Edvard says he felt his life was over until he met Pandora. He is determined to marry her and will not be held responsible if his ex-wife kills herself. Sidney says that if Edvard goes through with the marriage, he will kill himself too, and his brothers and sisters will do the same. Kandall, worried about scandal, says that the wedding is off, and asks the Reverend for advice. He says that people should be with those they love. Floral faints.
Pandora threatens to elope with Edvard if Kandall forbids the marriage. Kandall allows the marriage to go ahead. Sidney announces, "All must die," and goes off to the woods.
Floral talks deprecatingly about her appearance in her pregnancy. The Reverend abruptly goes off to the manor to pray. Pandora again calls him a good man, but Floral cautions, "Everyone isn't always what they seem." Floral goes off to the woods. Kandall goes with Pandora to the manor to fetch a dessert of cherries jubilee.
Jonsey asks Edvard if he (Edvard) is the father of Floral's child. Jonsey explains that he flirts with women to spread the myth that he is a womanizer, but it is all illusion. He and Floral pretend that the child is his. Jonsey leaves.
Kandall and Pandora enter with the dessert. Kandall apologizes to Edvard for Floral, who has carved into his wedding cake and eaten a large piece. Kandall is shocked that Floral ate the cake with her fingers. Kandall blames Floral's permanent anger on Jonsey's supposed infidelities. Floral had counseling from the Reverend, but he went to Nigeria about the time that she became pregnant.
Kandall reflects alone on the "impossible" wedding. Sidney enters and Kandall invites him to eat cherries jubilee with her. He cannot bear her kindness, as he has not come "as a friend of these proceedings" but "only to disrupt and annihilate." Kandall explains that they are on the same side, as neither wants to see the wedding take place. They drink champagne and gaze at the night sky. Sidney is haunted by the thought of his mother committing suicide, but Kandall says his life would go on even if she did. Kandall reveals that she is terminally ill but has told no one. Sidney kisses her passionately and tells her he loves her, but he then berates himself and kicks down a row of toadstools. Kandall rebukes him for destroying the "fairies' houses." As Kandall goes off, Sidney tries to repair the toadstools.
Floral enters, covered in dirt and foliage, her hair tousled. She tells Sidney that she has been rolling down hills. Sidney leaves as the Reverend enters. The Reverend tells Floral that he has decided to leave the church. She says that he must not leave the church, just as she must not leave her marriage. He agrees, but only "because it is the right thing to say." Overcome with passion, he kisses her, but then draws back, feeling that their relationship is "impossible." Floral angrily rejoices that her child will come from a good home, "without any hint of scandal." Jonsey enters from the woods, and Floral kisses him. The Reverend leaves, unseen by Jonsey, for the woods. Floral and Jonsey pull apart and look sadly at each other.
The following morning, all is in place for the wedding. Floral enters and apologizes to Kandall for eating the wedding cake, explaining that her hunger got the better of her. Kandall replies that they are supposed to be civilized human beings, not animals. Sidney enters and asks Kandall to forgive him, referring to his romantic overtures. Kandall exits to the manor. Floral suggests that Sidney prevent the marriage going ahead by shooting the groom. She tells him where in the house he can find a pistol. Sidney goes off to fetch it.
Floral warns Edvard that his life is in danger and advises him to leave before the wedding. Edvard admits to having doubts. Floral and Edvard discuss civilized behavior. Edvard is torn between his desire to escape all marriages and his love for Pandora.
Jonsey arrives and reports that the Reverend went missing that morning and has since been found weeping in a muddy ditch. Kandall enters and announces that the wedding will begin. Pandora enters in her bridal gear and wings. Sidney enters with a pistol and points it at Edvard. He threatens to shoot his father unless the wedding is called off. Pandora runs to Edvard, vowing never to leave him. The Reverend intervenes. Kandall tells Sidney that if he shoots the Reverend, she will never speak to him again. Distracted, Sidney accidentally shoots himself in the foot. Pandora again tells the Reverend that he is a good man. A bleeding Sidney begs the Reverend to help him, but the Reverend tears off his preacher's collar and announces that his life as a minister is over, as it has led only to "desperate, unquenchable desires." He storms off in the direction of the woods. Edvard calms Sidney by reciting a poem (Dylan Thomas's "The Lament") that he used to read to him when he was a child.
Sidney is carried into the house, and everyone except Kandall and Floral goes off. Floral confesses to Kandall that she guided Sidney to the pistol. She says that one day, Pandora will be grateful, as "once you are married you're stuck." Kandall disagrees, insisting that tradition keeps people sane. Floral says that the child she is carrying is not Jonsey's. Kandall advises her not to tell Jonsey. Floral says he probably knows, as they never consummated their marriage. She adds that she does not love him. Floral weeps and says that all along, she only wanted to emulate her parents, who loved each other. Kandall corrects her: she and her husband pretended to love one another so that the children would not get "the wrong idea about marriage." Kandall's advice is that eventually, they will all die and their troubles will be over. In the meantime, there will be a scandal, but she no longer cares. Kandall and Floral embrace.
Pandora enters, wearing her wings over her honeymoon suit. She and Edvard have decided to drive to a neighboring county, where a judge will marry them in a civil ceremony. She adds that Sidney's wound is not serious. Floral confesses to Pandora that she is jealous of her and has plotted against her wedding because her own marriage is miserable. Pandora, however, admits that she fears for the future: her charms are dependent on youth and will fade. She must seize her chance when she can.
Edvard and Jonsey enter, and Edvard admits to Floral that he has doubts about his marriage. He reflects on the symbolism (in Greek mythology) of Pandora's box, which contained both pestilence and hope.
Pandora and Edvard leave. Jonsey explains to Floral that he is impotent and only gives attention to other women to appear normal. Floral tells Jonsey that she must leave him. He objects, saying he will love her child as his own, but Floral wants reality, not pretence.
Sidney comes into the scene, and Jonsey tells him that he is so disturbed by Floral's snoring that he is going to divorce her. Floral agrees, and Jonsey leaves. Floral admits to Sidney that the gun suggestion was a mistake, but Sidney is pleased that he was able to tell his mother that the marriage did not take place and prevent her suicide, for the moment.
The Reverend enters. He says that while being with Floral would be "tricky," it would not be impossible. Floral says she wants to be with him forever. He replies that that is impossible, but in the meantime, "many things" can happen to them in their life together. He leads her out of the garden and into the woods.
Kandall enters, eating raspberries with her fingers. Sidney tells her that Floral has left with the Reverend, who is the father of her child. Kandall wonders if it is too late to change her life. She asks Sidney to kiss her. He declines and says he must go, but first asks for a raspberry. As the scene fades to black, he remains, eating berries with Kandall.
Kandall is the wealthy matriarch of the Southern country estate on which the action of the play takes place. She is a beautiful and elegant widow in her fifties, and the mother of Floral and Pandora. Throughout most of the play, her main concern is to preserve an appearance of civilized behavior, respectability, and decorum for her family. For example, in part one, when Floral temporarily persuades Pandora to cancel her wedding, Kandall's priority is to pick up the wedding cake so that there is no danger that it could be seen by the townspeople and become "an emblem of our impetuous hearts." She can be relied upon to change the subject or create a pleasant distraction whenever events begin to turn ugly or embarrassing.
As the chaotic events of the play unfold, Kandall's attempts to maintain a veneer of perfection begin to unravel. This change is also partly prompted from within herself, as she knows that she is terminally ill and is finally (in part three) able to admit that the image of the happy marriage that she projected within her family was a lie. Her inner development is symbolized by her willingness at the play's end to eat berries with her fingers, a behavior that previously appalled her, and is characterized by her readiness to enter a romantic relationship with the much younger Sidney. Finally, it seems that Kandall is on the brink of a new and more spontaneous phase of life.
Pandora is the twenty-year-old daughter of Kandall Kingsley and the younger sister of Floral Whitman. She is the bride-to-be whose forthcoming wedding to Edvard Lunt sparks the events of the play. Described as "the image of youthful exuberance," Pandora embodies the romantic hopes of youth, pushing aside the objections of other characters to her unsuitable marriage because of her love for Edvard. The wings that she dons for her wedding symbolize her whimsical and unworldly viewpoint. She has doubts about her marriage to Edvard and allows herself to be persuaded against it by Floral, but changes her mind as soon as she sees him. Her lone dance, in which Edvard does not join her, emphasizes her isolation in her idealized world. She is surrounded by more experienced and cynical characters who act as foils (contrasting or opposite characters) to her own nature.
Pandora justifies going ahead with her marriage on the basis that she knows that her charms will not age well, and that therefore she must seize her moment. This is probably a delusion, as the older Floral and the much older Kandall find that such moments of opportunity can occur at any age.
Reverend Jonathan Larence
The Reverend, as he is called in the play, is the minister who is engaged to perform the marriage ceremony. He is described as having "an innocent aura that can be alternately interpreted as idiotic and wise." He has recently returned from Nigeria, where he has been doing missionary or charity work. This prompts Pandora repeatedly to praise him as a good man, a charge that he strenuously denies—as it transpires, with reason. In part two it is revealed that Floral had marriage guidance counseling from him and became pregnant at around the time he left for Nigeria. His being discovered weeping in a ditch on the morning of the wedding suggests that there are hidden conflicts in his life, which finally come to the surface during the marriage ceremony. The Reverend tears off his collar, renounces his ministerial vocation and runs off into the woods. The reason for his behavior soon becomes clear: he and Floral are in love and she is expecting his child. After Floral announces that she is divorcing her husband, the Reverend decides that his own relationship with her, though "tricky," is not impossible. He rises above the pretences of his life in the church and embraces his own redemption in the form of a new life of passion with Floral.
Edvard Lunt, Pandora's fianceé, is a worldly, decadent-looking, but attractive man in his fifties who has achieved global fame in some unnamed field. According to Floral, he has the reputation of being a philanderer and a drunk. He has divorced his wife of twenty-three years and left his seven children in order to marry Pandora, even though he is more than twice her age. The gap separating him from Pandora is obvious to everyone but her: he is too short-sighted to see her dancing in the dark, too staid and prone to indigestion to join her in the dance, and too experienced in relationships to harbor any illusions that their love will last forever. He veers between enchantment with Pandora's youthful charm and doubts about the wisdom of their union. His excuse for being late for the wedding—that he was in a hotel fire in which his documents were destroyed—does not inspire confidence. It adds to the existing impression of a murky and unaccountable past.
Edvard has a distant relationship with his family. He does not recognize his own son, Sidney, when he turns up for the wedding. In part one, Sidney describes him as a good man, but one who "doesn't know what to say to children" (the irony of which lies in the fact that Edvard is marrying a woman young enough to be his daughter). Edvard's notion of bonding with his children seems to have been reading poetry to them. He read Dylan Thomas's poem "The Lament" to the young Sidney, and recites it to him again to comfort him after Sidney shoots himself in the foot. This poem, significantly, is a lament for lost youth by the ageing poet. While an odd choice to entertain a young child, it could be viewed as an apt commentary on the ageing Edvard's relationship with the much younger Pandora, as well as veiled advice to the repressed Sidney to live his life with passion while he still can. Edvard tells Floral in part one, "I believe we are defined by the things we can no longer feel, dream, or accomplish." It becomes clear in the rest of the play that there are many things that Edvard can no longer feel, dream, or accomplish. He cannot feel the urge to dance in the night with Pandora, he cannot share her dream of love without end because he has seen love end, and he cannot marry without being haunted by the thought that his ex-wife may carry out her threat to kill herself. Nevertheless, his final decision to marry Pandora, whatever the risks, shows courage.
Sidney Lunt is the son of Edvard Lunt and Margaret, Edvard's former wife whom Edvard divorced when he met Pandora. Although he is a young man in his twenties, Sidney seems old before his time, with his beard and wire glasses. Indeed, the reason his father gives for not recognizing him is that he looks too old to be his son, although this also shows Edvard's self-delusion in pursuing an ill-starred marriage with a woman young enough to be his daughter. Edvard acts younger than his age, whereas Sidney acts older than his. Unlike his father, Sidney takes a timid and cynical approach to life. He has never known love and the closest he has come to a relationship with a woman is a commercial relationship with a female ice-cream seller, whom he rejected when she gave him a type of ice-cream he did not like.
Sidney occupies the comedic role of antagonist. Traditional comedy often centers on the desire of a young couple to marry. This couple may or may not be the protagonists (main characters who drive the action forward). Their union is opposed and frustrated by the antagonist (from the Greek meaning opposing actor), often taking the form of an older parent or other relative who discounts love in favor of money or status. The broader conflict is thus between youth and age, love and material concerns, passion and cynicism, and life-affirming fertility and death-dealing decline.
Henley both establishes and subverts the role of antagonist in the character of Sidney. First, he is an atypical antagonist because, as Edvard's son, he is younger than the man who wishes to marry. Thus, in an ironic reversal, passion is embodied in the ageing Edvard, while cynicism is embodied in the young Sidney. Typical of the antagonist, however, is Sidney's entrance on the stage. It is marked by the anti-romantic act of striking a row of flowers with his cane and laughing in the manner of a cliché stage villain. His antagonist role is further cemented by his attempt to abort the wedding by aiming a pistol at his father.
But Sidney is not a very effective or committed antagonist. He has to be guided by Floral into borrowing a family pistol, and then he is distracted from shooting the Reverend, who intervenes to save Edvard and his bride, by Kandall's threat never to speak to him again. Sidney only succeeds in shooting himself in the foot. This action could stand as a metaphor for the way in which his growing capacity for love repeatedly undermines his half-hearted commitment to villainy.
This process of emotional development becomes more visible in part two. In an ironically detached reference to his role as antagonist, Sidney rejects Kandall's offer of cherries jubilee, as he has not come "as a friend of these proceedings" but "only to disrupt and annihilate." But later in the scene, his passion momentarily breaks through his desiccated personality enough for him to kiss Kandall passionately. Fighting his own nature, he immediately launches into a fit of self-hatred and, in an echo of his initial action in swiping at the flowers, kicks down a row of toadstools. It is clear that his action symbolizes his desire to destroy romantic ideals. But again, he is distracted from this attempt at villainy by his desire to please Kandall, who is upset for the fairies whose homes, she fancies, are the toad-stools. Pulled back from his angry urge to kick out at love and beauty by his own growing love for Kandall, he desperately tries to repair the toadstools.
In the final scene, he verbally rejects Kandall's request that he kiss her and says he must leave, but his body tells a different truth. Kandall, having announced that she means to change her life, is eating the berries with her fingers, a practice she previously viewed as uncivilized. Sidney does not leave, but takes a berry from her, relishes it, and stays.
Floral is Kandall's eldest daughter and the elder sister of Pandora. She is married to Jonsey. Floral is arguably the most complex and interesting character in the play. She is the closest character to an authorial voice. This interpretation may be justified by the fact that Henley wrote the play when pregnant, as Floral is. Floral brings a degree of realism to the whimsical lives of the other women, trying to burst the romantic bubble of Pandora and indulging in spontaneous but uncivilized behavior that offends Kandall. Her cynical and embittered attitude to life may stem from her sterile marriage to Jonsey, whom she believes to be unfaithful.
In her own way, Floral is as subject to self-delusion as the whimsical Pandora and Kandall, as she and Jonsey keep up a pretence of a happy and loving marriage. They even pretend that the baby Floral is carrying is Jonsey's. When Pandora suggests that Floral despises Jonsey, Floral claims that her angry rejection of his offered gift of a drink was nothing but the cravings of pregnancy. Floral also fails to see that Jonsey's flirtations are simply an act to make him appear more normal. Once he reveals this to her, she realizes that her marriage is empty and that she is free to be with the man she truly loves and the real father of her child, the Reverend Jonathan Larence. When she allows him to lead her out of the garden at the end of the play, this is symbolic of her embracing a more passionate, risky, and meaningful life.
Jonsey is Floral's husband. He is a wealthy and pleasant but vacuous man who states in part two, "I never wanted an interesting life. I prefer a few familiar things: my estate; my yachts; my trusted staff and crew." He is charming, attentive, and considerate, ready to dance with Pandora when Edvard will not, and offering to massage his wife's feet with oils when they are swollen. He is happy to keep up the pretence that he and Floral have a loving and happy marriage and that the baby she is expecting is his. He is convinced of his own handsomeness, which he repeatedly mentions, and he flirts with other women to make himself appear normal. He has gained the reputation of being a womanizer, but as he says to Edvard, he has never had an affair.
Jonsey stages a conversation for Sidney's benefit in which he mentions Floral's supposed snoring as a reason why they must divorce. It is possible that Jonsey is motivated by a desire to shield Floral from more scandal rather than by a desire to preserve his own reputation. Such good manners would be typical of him. Jonsey's exit leaves the way clear for Floral to pursue her relationship with the Reverend openly.
Civilization versus Passion
The main theme of Impossible Marriage is the conflict between civilization and passion. At the beginning of the play, the characters are victims of their own over-civilized behavior, which leads them to pretend to be something they are not. Floral and Jonsey tolerate their disastrous marriage and even pretend that Floral's baby is Jonsey's when both know better. They act the part of a loving couple, seemingly so that they can avoid unpleasantness. Jonsey pretends to be a womanizer, even though it leads Floral to become so angry that she has to enter counseling with the Reverend, with whom she falls in love. The Reverend carries out his ministerial duties and must listen to people praising him as a virtuous paragon, even though he is involved with Floral and is the father of her child. Kandall keeps up the image of the gracious hostess, presiding over the wedding and welcoming the guests, even though she is so against the match that she wishes Edvard would die. She allows her family to believe that she and her husband were in love and had a good marriage. More seriously, she is terminally ill but keeps it a secret so as not to "cast a shadow."
The impending wedding acts as a catalyst to bring everyone's secrets into the open. This has the effect of allowing the characters to let go of their pretences of civilized behavior and to live with greater spontaneity and passion.
The Repression and Liberation of Women
In choosing the tradition-bound society of the Deep South as the setting for the play, Henley has fenced in her female characters with a set of social conventions and expectations that are arguably more restrictive than those encountered elsewhere. Floral rebels against the expectations placed upon women in this highly artificial society. She embodies a state of barely contained rage. She is impatient with Jonsey's gallantries, such as fetching her drinks and giving foot massages. She counters Pandora's dance—an image of beautiful femininity—in part two by commenting vulgarly, "I wonder if I got these warts out here touching frogs." This remark, the second in which Floral refers to her warts, refers to the old folkloric belief that warts are contracted by touching frogs or toads. It also has many anti-romantic connotations. It subverts the fairy-tale tradition of kissing a frog that turns into a prince, as here, the frogs only produce warts, and it carries a folkloric association with witches and old crones who lived outside respectable society, but were perhaps privy to unusual or forbidden wisdom.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
In Jackson R. Bryer's "Expressing ‘The Misery and Confusion Truthfully’: An Interview with Beth Henley," published in American Drama, Henley recalls writing Impossible Marriage: "I remember deliberately wanting to steal from Oscar Wilde. I went and read everything he wrote and I said, ‘Give me some of that and some of that. Sprinkle it on me.’" Read any one of Oscar Wilde's comic plays. Write an essay in which you compare and contrast Henley's use of language in Impossible Marriage with Wilde's. Include in your essay an analysis of the dramatic strengths and weaknesses of Henley and Wilde's respective styles of language.
Henley is often praised as a playwright who is keeping alive an American regional voice on the stage. Research any aspect of the history and culture of the American South that you believe informs Henley's Impossible Marriage. Another way of looking at this question is to ask yourself what makes the play distinctively a work of the American South. Give a class presentation on your findings.
Henley has cited the nineteenth-century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov as an important influence on her work. In his interview with Henley, Bryer identifies "simultaneous comedy and seriousness" as an important quality of the work of both playwrights. Write an essay in which you consider how Henley's Impossible Marriage embodies this quality. You may, if you wish, refer to the work of Chekhov in your answer.
Henley's Impossible Marriage focuses on the pretences maintained by people who are determined, in varying degrees, to appear more respectable or civilized than they really are. Identify (without naming names or revealing personal information) some of the pretences maintained by people that you know or have met. You may, if you wish, include yourself. Analyze the reasons (for example, cultural, ethnic, gender-based, religious, or personal) why people maintain these pretences: what do they stand to gain and lose through maintaining or abandoning them? You may find the psychological concepts of compensation (covering up qualities or behaviors that the individual deems socially or personally unacceptable) and persona (the mask that people present to the outside world, as opposed to their real self) useful in pursuing your analysis. Lead a class discussion or write a report on your findings.
"Warts and all" could be Floral's personal motto in Impossible Marriage. She is determined to puncture Pandora's romantic ideals, partly, as she admits later, out of jealousy, but also because she has an overwhelming drive to voice the unpleasant truth in a world of pleasant untruths. For example, she volunteers to break Pandora's engagement to Edvard when Pandora admits to doubts. She throws out the Southern belle ideals of hospitality and politeness to guests when, after Sidney tells of his strange relationship with the ice-cream seller, she announces bluntly, "This is a silly person." Breaking the rules of feminine decorum, she calls her pregnant body "gigantic" and "elephantine" and says she is able to "accommodate a circus under this tent" of a maternity dress. Floral says things that others dare not, in the process giving voice to the audience's feelings. Her outspokenness makes her the most likeable character in the play as well as the most rebellious.
It is a frequent criticism of Henley's work, and of Impossible Marriage in particular, that the male characters are two-dimensional and unconvincing. In this play, however, that weakness could be seen as a strength to the play overall. The female characters are memorable, and the audience is impatient for these strong women to cease defining themselves in their relationship to the patriarchal Southern society and to their individual men, who seem oddly bloodless. While Floral and Kandall do enter new relationships with men of their choice by the end of the play, this time, the women are in control.
The setting of Impossible Marriage is an artificial and constricted one that reflects the theme of civilization versus passion. The general location of the play, the Deep South, evokes images of a society deeply concerned with correct appearances. Intensifying these factors is the immediate setting of Kandall's garden, an artifice that is as carefully managed as the public image of her family.
The garden has exits in the direction of both the manor and the woods. The woods symbolize wildness and passion, and the manor symbolizes civilization. Characters exit to, and enter from, one or the other, depending on which principle is dominant in their psyche at that moment.
Impossible Marriage is often called a melodrama. The word melodrama derives from the Greek words for song and drama, and was originally used to refer to drama in which music was used to intensify the emotional effect. The term has come to mean drama in which extreme emotion is emphasized, and plot and action take precedence over character development.
Impossible Marriage is full of melodramatic incidents, such as when Sidney turns up at the wedding ceremony with a pistol and threatens to shoot his father, and when Floral runs off with the Reverend and he is revealed to be the father of her child. However, Henley undermines the melodrama with the absurd and the human. For example, Sidney fails to shoot his father and ends up shooting himself in the foot.
Comedy of Manners
Impossible Marriage is often described as a comedy of manners. Comedy of manners is a literary genre that satirizes the customs of a social group or class. The genre flourished in the Restoration period from 1660 to 1710 in England, in what has become known as Restoration comedy. Restoration comedy featured artificial plots involving sexual liaisons, stock characters, and witty, epigrammatic dialogue. The tradition of artificial plots and epigrammatic speech was taken up by the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde in plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).
In the case of Impossible Marriage, the class that is satirized is the upper-class society of the Deep South, with its preoccupation with decorum and propriety. The play also features stock characters and epigrammatic dialogue.
Critics have commented on the epigrammatic, mannered, and unrealistic dialogue of ImpossibleMarriage. An epigram is a witty, ingenious, or pointed saying tersely expressed, so epigrammatic dialogue is speech that embodies these qualities. An example is Sidney's remark, "Love has yet to avail itself to my scrutiny." One effect of such dialogue is to rob it of emotional power. Also, epigrammatic dialogue often results in the characters addressing the audience rather than each other. This reinforces the emotional distance between the characters.
Occasionally, Henley achieves a wit comparable to that of Oscar Wilde, as when Kandall comments acerbically on the disastrous marriage ceremony. Using the Wildean subverted cliché, she says, "Amazing. It has all gone off so much worse than expected." With the substitution of the word worse for the expected word better, Kandall sums up the series of uncomfortable revelations prompted by the marriage.
Southern Belle Archetype
Although slavery has ended and the South of the twenty-first century has a diverse economy, certain features of the antebellum (pre-Civil War) culture persist in the region. One cultural reference point implicit in Impossible Marriage and other literary works based in the South is the archetype (idealized model) of the Southern belle. This is a woman of the wealthy upper class whose family typically owns a country estate. She would be more likely to be a homemaker than to have a career outside the home, and would aim to be a good wife and mother, a gracious hostess, and an accomplished cook. She would cultivate traditional feminine and wifely virtues such as hospitality, charm, and beauty. Flirting would be part of her feminine appeal, but she must at the same time be chaste and above moral reproach. Critics of the Southern belle archetype point out its repressive influence on women, in that it tries to make them conform to a restrictive external set of criteria.
In Impossible Marriage, Kandall embodies many Southern belle virtues. A charming and elegant hostess, she tries to smooth over any embarrassing or uncomfortable episode with polite small talk and gestures of hospitality, as when she announces in part two that the wedding will go ahead:
SIDNEY. Then all must die. (Sidney exits to the woods.)
KANDALL. More champagne, please.
Pandora, with her whimsical femininity and willingness to subjugate her doubts about Edvard to her love for him, qualifies as a Southern belle. Floral, in contrast, is by nature antagonistic to this ideal and is increasingly honest about her attitude as the play progresses. With her talk of accommodating circuses under her maternity dress, her musings about warts, her blunt advice to Pandora about Edvard's unsuitability as a husband, and her barbaric behavior in carving into the wedding cake and eating it with her hands, she might be called an anti-Southern belle. Kandall's final desertion of the Southern belle ideal of chaste widowhood in pursuit of the much younger Sidney means that only Pandora remains in the Southern belle camp—and she, as Henley portrays her, is too young and inexperienced to know any better.
It is worth noting the symbolism of names in the play in relation to the Southern belle archetype. The name Kandall suggests the cliché expression, "to keep the candle burning," which means to keep alive a memory or tradition, in this case for the ways of the Old South. The symbolism is reinforced by Kandall's ordering the candelabra to be brought when the short-sighted Edvard cannot see in the dark. Delighted with the romantic light cast by the candelabra, Kandall says, with satisfaction, "The mood created."
Floral's name, suggesting Kandall's beautiful garden as well as the feminine dresses worn by Southern belles, was undoubtedly bestowed by Kandall in an exercise in wishful thinking. Floral does not live up to the Southern belle ideal of decorative decorum, but she does embody a different feminine archetype. Like her near-namesake Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and spring, Floral is fertile and creative (significantly, the play is set in a garden in mid-May, when Flora's powers were at their height). Floral is pregnant with a baby and with new possibilities for the future. She finally rejects Kandall's tamed garden and allies herself with a wilder aspect of nature, the woods and hills that lie beyond.
The American South
The American Civil War (1861-65) cemented a division between Northern and Southern states of the United States. In 1861, thirteen Southern states seceded (disjoined) from the United States, or Union. Eleven of those states, including Georgia, where the play Impossible Marriage is set, joined together to form the Confederate States of America, or the Confederacy. The secession brought about the American Civil War. The war was primarily about different economic systems. The Southern states were heavily dependent on slave labor, which underpinned their plantation-based, agricultural economy. The Northern states were increasingly rejecting slavery and had a fast-expanding industrial economy. With the victory of the Union forces in 1865, all slaves were freed.
The states in the Deep South, a subregion that includes Georgia, were the most dependent on the plantation economy, the main crop being cotton. Savannah, where Kandall's country estate is situated, was one of the main centers for cotton, and it is likely that the estate was once a cotton plantation.
Many authors who have written about the South (notably William Faulkner in such novels as The Sound and the Fury , and Absalom, Absalom! ; Margaret Mitchell in her novel Gone With the Wind ; and Tennessee Williams in plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire ) emphasize in their work that while some aspects of the region changed as a result of the Civil War, others did not. The political and economic systems were transformed and the institution of slavery vanished, but many cultural morés, attitudes, and practices persisted. The latter half of the twentieth century saw the rise of a new generation of authors who, conscious of the South's history of slavery, identified racism as a prominent Southern trait and confronted its effects in their work. One of the best known of this group of authors is Alice Walker, whose novel The Color Purple (1982) explores the racism encountered by a young black woman in a predominantly white Southern culture.
Though the character of the American South has evolved over time, the South maintains a distinctive culture, and this is especially so in the Deep South. The Deep South is widely viewed as conservative and as embodying traditional values, such as an emphasis on the importance of family, strong religious convictions, propriety, and patriotism. As of 2008, there is no sign that Southern values are in decline. On the contrary, their perceived power and resilience gave rise in the early 2000s to a new term, southernization, which refers to the idea that Southern values and beliefs are being adopted throughout the United States.
In Impossible Marriage, the chief conflict is between the conservative Southern values embodied in Kandall and the more progressive and modern spirit embodied in Floral. Floral's behavior constantly shocks Kandall, who tries for much of the play to maintain the appearance of decorum that she has so carefully cultivated. In the end, this is a losing battle. Just as the old South had to change its economic and social structures after the Civil War, so Kandall gives up trying to hold on to the old ways. Ultimately, she enthusiastically embraces the new life of spontaneity and passion. It is significant, however, that Kandall's transformation occurs within her typically Southern garden surrounding her manor house. Kandall's partner in passion, Sidney, is invited to stay with her in the garden, tasting its delicious fruits. Henley, like Margaret Mitchell before her, seems to suggest that Southern life can adapt to changing times and values and that its beauty and charm will survive.
Henley's plays have often met with a mixed critical response, and Impossible Marriage is no exception. Ben Brantley, in his 1998 review of the play for the New York Times, compares the play unfavorably to Crimes of the Heart, remarking that "this comedy never breaks through its exterior to reveal a fractured human heart." Charles Isherwood, writing in Variety, calls the play "sometimes insufferably precious and sometimes disarmingly charming—and often both simultaneously." Isherwood is one of several critics who find themselves alienated by the "fanciful dialogue," which "keeps reminding us that these Southern madcaps aren't particularly convincing as flesh-and-blood human beings." Ishwerwood concludes, "The artificial grandiloquence of the talk and the plot's self-consciously addled air" make it hard to take seriously the characters' thoughts on "the need for both civilization and erotic abandon." In a similar vein, Mark Harris, in his review for Entertainment Weekly (1998), calls the play "mossy, overdrawn Southern-gothic whimsy."
Reviewing the play for the Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck judges it "a distressing step down" for the author of Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest. In Scheck's view, the comic style "leans much too far toward the baroque and silly," the dialogue is "far more arch than it is enlightening," and the characters are "more irritating than endearing." The actors in this New York production, he notes, "struggle with the artificiality of what they are given to play."
Richard Scholem, in his review for the Long Island Business News, praises those aspects of the play that other critics condemn. Scholem calls it the "funniest, frothiest, finest comedy," with "bigger-than-life" characters who are "deliciously overwrought, over dramatic, over magnified and over the edge." He adds that they delight because although they are tragic, "we need not take any of them seriously."
Pamela Renner, reviewing the play for American Theatre, believes that its characters show a maturation from the "youthful infatuation and emotional disarray evident in [Henley's] 1980s works" on the grounds that they are more ready to accept the passage of time. Renner also notes that the "sense of delight" of Henley's earlier works is also to be found in Impossible Marriage, but the tone is softer and more mellow.
Robinson has a master's degree in English. She is a teacher of English literature and a freelance writer and editor. In this essay, Robinson examines the nature of the redemption achieved by the characters of Beth Henley's Impossible Marriage in light of the Greek myth of Pandora.
In Impossible Marriage, Pandora's forthcoming wedding propels many of the characters out of their old lives of pretence and conformity. Change is long overdue, as is clear from the gap between the civilized pretence of their lives and the reality. In this gap arises tension, which demands resolution. They escape the old confines of civilized behavior and embrace lives of greater spontaneity, reality, and passion. But any notion that they are leaving their problems behind and heading for a paradisical new existence would be simplistic in the extreme. The nature of the journey they make, and the redemption they achieve, is central to an understanding of the play.
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Henley cites Chekhov as a major influence. In her interview with Jackson R. Bryer for American Drama, Henley points to Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard (first published under its Russian name, Vishnevyi sad, in 1904) as a particular inspiration for her work.
Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With the Wind (1936) is an illuminating study of the customs and mores of the Deep South before, during, and after the Civil War, particularly as they applied to women. The book is written from the point of view of the upper-class slave-owning society and is sympathetic to slavery.
Sarah Morgan: The Civil War Diary Of A Southern Woman, edited by Charles East and published in 1992, is a compilation of entries from the diary of the wife of a Confederate soldier during the American Civil War. Written between 1862 and 1866, the diaries were first published in 1913. Readers of Impossible Marriage may recognize in the self-absorbed Morgan a prototype of the more whimsical aspects of Henley's characters.
Mary Chesnut's Civil War, edited by C. Vann Woodward and published in 1981, is a classic diary account of the Civil War written between 1861 and 1865 by the wife of a prominent politician of the time. Chesnut's observant and well-informed account makes an interesting contrast to that of fellow diarist Sarah Morgan. Woodward's annotated edition won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1982.
The journey that is explored in most detail is that of Floral. She appears to have remained in her sterile marriage to Jonsey so as not to upset him and her family. At the beginning of the play, their play-acting is committed, though largely unconvincing. This is shown graphically by Floral's attitude to her pregnancy. Though she is so heavily pregnant that the fact is obvious to all, she tries to play it down, saying, "Is it really that apparent? I'm carrying extremely small for my size." She wishes to minimize the pregnancy because Jonsey is not the father of her baby.
While Floral's mind leads her into lies, her body forces her to tell the truth. By part two, only hours have passed since she described her bump as "small," but she now talks of it as "gigantic" and "elephantine." Her shape has not changed, but her attitude toward life has. She is less able, and less willing, to pretend or to cultivate the appearance of propriety. While she may fool herself and others that she has a happy marriage, nature has its own language, and it cannot be denied a voice forever. It speaks through her growing pregnancy—with another man's child. This fact forces itself into everyone's awareness, most of all Floral's. She is losing control of her pretences, a process that is shown symbolically by her animalistic behavior in carving into the cake and eating it with her fingers. She blames pregnancy cravings, but her cravings for cake symbolize her desire for the Reverend, whose child she is carrying. Floral alerts the audience to this symbolic undertone when she tries to explain to Pandora her rejection of the drink Jonsey brought her only minutes after asking for it: "These cravings are very deep and reason does not speak to them." Her true feelings are breaking through her veneer of civilized pretence.
The job of maintaining civilized appearances is left largely to Kandall, who is appalled at Floral's treatment of the cake: "If this continues, we'll soon be searching for distant places in which she can be put out of our sight for long periods of time along with other criminals, lunatics and barbarians." Pandora backs up Kandall's attitude by pointing out another of Floral's sins against feminine propriety: "And she has warts, Mother. She has warts on her fingers." Significantly, a wart, like a pregnancy, is a natural growth that is not under the control of the forces of civilization. There is much irony in the juxtaposition of Kandall's increasingly doomed attempts at keeping up appearances with the less photogenic reality. When Floral walks off barefoot "to go roll down a hill," an uncontrolled and uncivilized act which is especially dangerous during pregnancy, Kandall tries to distract everyone by changing the subject to the dessert of cherries jubilee. Significantly, while she goes off to fetch the dessert, Jonsey confides to Edvard that Floral's child cannot be his because he and his wife have never consummated their marriage. The effect is of tragedy covered with a fragile veneer of social niceties.
Kandall's carefully constructed world finally cracks when Floral tells her why she stayed with Jonsey: she wanted to emulate Kandall's happy marriage. Kandall admits that in reality, she did not love her husband. She hid the fact because, as she says to Floral, "You might have gotten the wrong idea about marriage." The irony lies in the fact that "the wrong idea" is, in this case, the truth. Kandall and Floral have been caged in falsehoods of their own making, condemning themselves to passionless lives for the sake of maintaining an image of respectability. Once Kandall has admitted this secret, she is able to rise above her previous obsession with avoiding scandal.
It is probable that Kandall's knowledge that she is terminally ill also enables her to gain a new perspective on life and see what is truly important. Significantly, she reveals this secret first to Sidney. Her gesture of trust and truth-telling emboldens him, prompting him to kiss her passionately. The two subsequently begin a romantic relationship. This relationship promises to rejuvenate the young man, who is old before his time, and to allow Kandall to move beyond the Southern belle virtues she previously cultivated.
However, the passionate life is not held up as a panacea, or cure-all. The most committed passionate relationship in the play is that between Edvard and Pandora, yet it carries undertones of impending disaster, mostly because of the mismatch in age, life experience, and energy between the two. Pandora is "the image of youthful exuberance." Edvard, in contrast, is over twice her age, ominously believes that "we are defined by the things we can no longer feel, dream, or accomplish," and is unable to join her in her night-time dance because he has eaten too much and does not feel the urge. Both parties have doubts about the match, and Edvard's final determination to go through with the wedding is, as the eighteenth-century English essayist and critic Samuel Johnson said (as quoted in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations) about a second marriage, "the triumph of hope over experience."
Hope is the chief factor that propels all the characters into their new lives. The most hopeful character in Impossible Marriage is Pandora. In order to understand the undertones of the concept of hope as Henley uses it, it is important to consider the origin of the name Pandora. In Greek myth, Pandora was the first woman. She was created by the gods on the orders of Zeus, the king of the gods, in revenge against Prometheus, the first man, because he stole fire from heaven. She was modeled in the image of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and so was extremely beautiful.
Pandora's name derives from the Greek for "all-gifted" or "the gift of all" because each of the gods gave her a power designed to bring about the ruin of man. She was also given a box to contain all these gifts, but was told never to open the box. Then she was sent to earth. Prometheus did not trust Zeus and stayed away from Pandora, but his brother, Epimetheus, was overwhelmed by her beauty and married her. It is noteworthy that Prometheus's name means "forethought," and Epimetheus's name means "afterthought." One of the gifts that Pandora had been given was curiosity. She was eager to find out what was in the box and, despite Prometheus's warnings, Epimetheus allowed her to open it. All the evils in the box flew out, and ever since, they have afflicted the world. Thus the term Pandora's box is used to mean a gift that is actually a curse.
Some accounts of the myth say that the last gift to fly out was hope, but other accounts say that hope alone remained in the box. Interpretation of this last element of the myth is debated. It could mean that hope is a blessing that remains accessible to man to enable him to bear all the other afflictions, or it could mean that hope is a blessing that is denied him because it is locked in the box.
A third possibility, and the one that is suggested in Impossible Marriage, is that hope is itself an evil. This is because it encourages people to be discontent with their present lot and to desire something more, or something other, just as Edvard and Floral become discontented with their marriages. As Francesco Aristide Ancona writes in his psychological explication of the Pandora myth for the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, "Hope Sinks: Pandora, Eve and the Obsession of Ahab," "Hope is what keeps us from ever being happy because it fuels the black hole in us, creating a constant expectation and desire for more." The message of the myth, Ancona concludes, is that "hope is evil."
Henley is not so categorical in her modern reworking of the Pandora myth. Rather, Impossible Marriage emphasizes the tantalizing ambiguity of the myth, as highlighted by Edvard. As Edvard and Pandora are about to leave Kandall's house to be married, Edvard says, "Pestilence and hope were in Pandora's box. Hope was the salvation. Or was it the final pestilence?"
Perhaps hope, embodied by the youthful and vivacious Pandora, is indeed a salvation, capable of rejuvenating the aging Edvard. As Edvard says on hearing how Pandora refused to throw out her dead fish, "I thought my life was over, then I met you." Hope enables Edvard to marry Pandora, for all their evident incompatibilities. Hope also drives a transformation in the lives of the other characters. It inspires Floral and the Reverend, and Kandall and Sidney, to embrace passion after a lifetime of self-denial and pretence. They hope they are taking the first step toward a better life. Beyond the world of good manners and propriety lies the promise of woods to be explored, berries to be eaten with the fingers, and hills to be rolled down. Perhaps the characters will find fulfillment. Pandora's impending marriage has acted as a catalyst to release this boxful of new possibilities for the characters.
On the other hand, hope may turn out to be a pestilence. The characters could end up recreating with their new partners the disappointment and pretence that dominated their old lives. Relationships that at present seem full of promise may fall apart, just as Edvard's first marriage did. In this case, disenchantment will breed further hope, for yet another and different life. It is ominous that one quality of Edvard's that is heavily emphasized is his shortsightedness, suggesting that in marrying Pandora, he has more in common with the gullible Epimetheus (afterthought) than the cautious Prometheus (forethought). This is also true of the other characters in the play. Only time will tell whether the tempting gifts that lure the characters into the world beyond the garden will turn out to be blessings or curses.
Source: Claire Robinson, Critical Essay on Impossible Marriage, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Jackson R. Bryer
In the following interview, Henley offers insight into her career in theater, including her first productions, and her writing process.
Beth Henley's first professionally produced play, Crimes of the Heart, won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1981 after a successful New York production (prior to New York, it had been done in Louisville, Baltimore, and St. Louis in 1979 and 1980). Her first produced play, Am I Blue (1974), was written while she was an undergraduate student at Southern Methodist University. Her works for the stage since Crimes of the Heart include The Miss Firecracker Contest (1980), The Wake of Jamey Foster (1981), The Debutante Ball (1985), The Lucky Spot (1987), Abundance (1989), Signature (1990), Control Freaks (1992), Revelers (1994), L-Play (1995), Impossible Marriage (1998), Sisters of the Winter Madrigal (2001), and Exposed (2002). This interview was conducted on September 30, 2002, in the Ina & Jack Kay Theatre of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland; the audience was composed of undergraduate and graduate students and faculty members. For significant assistance in preparing the transcription of the interview, I wish to thank Carolyn Bain.
JACKSON BRYER: Can you start by telling us about your first exposure to the theatre? As I recall, you became interested in theatre through your mother, who was an actress. Talk a little bit about your early interest in theatre and also about your time as a student of theatre.
BETH HENLEY: I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, really in suburbia, so my mother was in community theatre plays. They were so magical for me, and one of the most exciting experiences was to go in and see little houses that were built for people to act in and then were torn down. I would also help her with her lines. I remember when she got to play Blanche DuBois and I got to hear those words over and over again when she was trying to learn her lines. Also, I liked to help her edit things. If she was doing a reading for a club or something, we'd have to make Blanche's speeches longer and cut out Stanley's—so I got into editing. Then, when I was a senior in high school, I was kind of bereft and she put me in an acting class. What I loved about the acting class was that you got to think all day long about a person that wasn't you, and figure out why they were sad and what they wanted, what they dreamed. I just loved being divorced from my own wretchedness. Then I went off to Southern Methodist University in Dallas. They had a really wonderful theatre department. I regret that I was so not grateful at the time to my professors. We're sort of innocently arrogant about just being young. The class I liked the best, that I think helped me the most, was my movement class because when I got out of high school, I was very hunched over. In movement class, you had to lie on the floor and get your alignment in to pass the class. You had to stand on your head for, I think, three minutes. That transformed me in a way that's hard to speak about. I also took Stage Combat, and I took a wonderful class in Theatre Styles where you'd do the Greeks and make your own mask. I remember sitting there with a death mask over me with straws coming out of my nose. I had a really good Theatre History class that, at the time, was excruciating. It was at nine in the morning, and I would sometimes go in jeans and my bedroom slippers. But actually that's kind of the way I learned about history. The only foothold I have in world history is through theatre history.
JB: All this time, you were doing this in order to become an actress?
HENLEY: Yes. I was sort of in the acting program. How I got in the acting program is a miracle. Oh, I know how I got in. Anyone could get in! You had to do a general audition for the school when you got in, and I chose to do, brilliantly I think, Willie from This Property is Condemned. And then I did Macbeth in Macbeth, which was the only Shakespeare I knew. Somehow, I was in the acting department.
JB: But it sounds like when you talk about your experience with your mother that, even if you weren't conscious of it, you were paying pretty close attention to the words.
JB: Had you been interested in writing at all or were you always interested initially in being a performer—probably because your mother was a performer? Were you conscious of any interest in writing?
HENLEY: I wrote a play in sixth grade called Swing High, Swing Low. It was about Dolly, a girl who lives in the suburbs and goes to New York to be an artist. Actually, the character was named Dolly because when she came to New York, they said, "Hello, Dolly, hello!" And the parents back in the suburb were, "Kids. What's the matter with kids today?" I tried to direct as well as write this. I wasn't performing, and we got boys involved. It ended in a debacle. It never ever got on anywhere. It was a summer project. The next thing I wrote was in a writing class at night school. It was about a poor woman who worked at a dime store and who was all alone for Christmas in Laurel, Mississippi. I hadn't finished it and the teacher said, "Just read it anyway." I got up to read it, and I was so pained by its inadequacies that I crumpled up the paper and threw it on the floor and ran down the hallway and hid in the restroom for the rest of the afternoon. It's really interesting that whenever you do something that is so out of character, like having an emotional outburst, that you don't get in trouble. I guess they were horrified by the hysterics of a junior high schooler. After that I thought, "You know what? You're not smart enough to write." But when I got to SMU and decided to take a playwriting class, I said this isn't a bad idea. If I write characters, they could be as dumb as me, and I don't have to be very smart. It was kind of enlightening to become a playwright. I wrote a play called Am I Blue, which is about a young guy who's very straight and his fraternity's sending him to a whorehouse on his eighteenth birthday and he's a virgin. He meets this young sixteen-year-old girl who's all alone on the night of her prom and lives a very chaotic life. That was my first play that was actually done.
JB: After SMU you went to graduate school at the University of Illinois. What was the impetus behind that?
HENLEY: The impetus behind going to graduate school was a year after graduating from college spent in Dallas working at the dog food factory and Bank America and not having met success in my chosen field, which at that point was being an actress. I think I had a job in a children's theatre. I taught badly because I was into nihilism at the time and that's just not where you go with teaching. Then an old professor of mine went to run the art school at the University of Illinois in Champaign. He said he would give me a scholarship to go there if I would teach. I got there and somehow miraculously lived on two hundred dollars a month, which was what I got—and I was happy to have it. I did realize after being there for a year—I didn't complete my MFA—that if they had teachers as bad as me it wasn't a good sign. So I had to move on. I was just restless with being in school; so I went out to Los Angeles.
JB: You've spoken in other interviews about a time when several successful directors came to SMU. Can you speak a little bit about what it means to a person who is an undergraduate in theatre to have an actual, successful theatre professional present? What kind of impression did it make on you?
HENLEY: A searing impression. Somehow I got to be one of five of six actors that the directors would use as guinea pigs at this directing colloquium, where people pay to listen to and watch the directors direct. It was painful because I was a really bad actress. I remember I had just done an awful rendition of Juliet, and William Gaskill, this British director; said, "Now won't you just sit on that box and don't move!" Joseph Chaikin came and he read some stuff and he was so brilliant; that was glorious! I've never ever seen anything like that in my life. The spirit, the sort of human, animal, god energy of that guy was just unforgettable. Joseph Anthony came and we saw his film Tomorrow, which Horton Foote wrote. They were so artistic.
JB: Another story that you've told—and I don't know when this happened chronologically—is when you went to New York to see a production of The Cherry Orchard. When was that?
HENLEY: I was in college. We were having auditions the following year, so this was after my sophomore year. In the fall, I was going to have to audition for Chekhov's Three Sisters. I was reading it and it made no sense. I didn't get it. I probably had a bad translation anyway. I was like "How can I get into this character? Who are these people? They're stiff; they're not people you can really like." Then I went to see an all African-American production of The Cherry Orchard with Gloria Foster and James Earl Jones as Lopahin. I finally got it when he says, "They used to tell me I wrote like a pig." When he buys the cherry orchard, it's the happiest and most devastating moment of his life. It's so big how he did it, and I started having this sort of epileptic fit in the audience. I was crying and screaming; I was really euphoric because I understood how things could be simultaneously tragic and comic and so alive and so real. After that I understood Chekhov, but didn't get cast in Three Sisters. I did go on to write Crimes of the Heart, which is loosely based on Three Sisters.
JB: Don't you think also that the quality in Chekhov of simultaneous comedy and seriousness is something that characterizes many of your plays?
HENLEY: I like that edge. I like when I see it in writing if it's over the edge. Even something like the Marx Brothers is sort of brutal in how funny it is. Some really good things kind of swing both ways and I like to see people that can swing really, really, really sad and horrible and terrible and really, really, really beautiful and funny. I think Chekhov does that like nobody else. Shakespeare's up there, but …
JB: Isn't there something inherently Southern about that too, about combining the most grotesque and serious kinds of things with the funny, about being able to see the humor in the grotesque? Why is that? What is there about the South that makes that particularly true?
HENLEY: That's a good question. I think that people have to be able to see two sides of the coin to survive because it is a racist society and yet you're being raised by racists. So what are you going to do? There are these people who are feeding you, but they're chauvinist and racist. You kind of have to get a little perspective. You can't go with "They're just evil," and you can't go "Oh, I believe them, I love them." You kind of have to go "This is a little more complicated."
JB: You have to see them with two different sets of eyes.
HENLEY: At least two!
JB: Was Crimes of the Heart the second play you wrote after Am I Blue? Were there other plays in between?
HENLEY: I wrote one play that was only recently done. It was buried in a trunk. It's called Sisters of the Winter Madrigal. It was interesting for me to see it done after so many years; because I wrote it and I didn't realize what a rage I was in. I always think, "Oh, I'm not a feminist. I like men." But in this play there are these two sisters: one's a whore and one's a cow herder. One wants to marry the shoemaker's son, but the king wants her because of her hair and she ends up with her ear bit off; and the other one ends up with her arm chopped off. It's very Bergmanesque; there are all kind of pieces of them in the end.
JB: Who did it?
HENLEY: A friend of mine did it, Frederick Bailey. He and I had had a double bill back when my play was at SMU. We did his Vietnam play The Bridgehead and my blue play about two virgins. His play was first and ended with somebody getting shot in the head. Then they had to clean up the blood for my play. It wasn't a perfect double bill! But he is one of my favorite writers, and he's written a play and he wanted to do these two plays on the same bill; his new play is called Dirty, Ugly People and Their Stupid Meaningless Lives. I said sign me up! So he directed both of these pieces and so that's how it got done.
JB: What was is like seeing an early play like that? Do you say to yourself, "How could I have done that?"—or were you rather pleased with it?
HENLEY: I was touched that I was that enraged. I was happy to know I had that rage and happy that I'd written it then. That's what I was saying earlier. I'm always happy to have written anything because it's kind of a mark of who you were at the time if it's even vaguely honest—though you could never redo it. I couldn't recapture that sort of frivolous rage. It had its moments, so I was really pleased.
JB: Talk a little bit about how you came to write Crimes of the Heart.
HENLEY: My friend Frederick Bailey was doing Gringo Planet, a play of his, at the La MaMa Hollywood and he produced the whole thing for $500. I thought, "Maybe I could do that." I'd written the screenplay while I was out there and I said, "This would be perfect for Sissy Spacek. I love her! I'll call up her agent and see about her reading it." So the agent says, "We don't take unsolicited material. When you get a producer to produce it, we'll be happy to look at it." Then I called up producers and they said they didn't take unsolicited material. It was a catch-22 thing. I didn't really know how to get it to a producer or how to get it to an agent. Nobody's going to look at it unless it's a success. I wrote Crimes of the Heart kind of because I thought, "At least I can do this with my friends for my friends for $500 at the La MaMa." That's why in the very first draft I don't have them cut into the cake because I'm thinking of the budget! We can't have a different cake every night, so the lights go down as they cut it. That's also why it was one set, a kitchen, and modern clothes. I was really thinking practically when I wrote that play; I was thinking about producing it on my own.
JB: Was it done at La MaMa in Los Angeles?
HENLEY: No, it wasn't done at La MaMa. I didn't have $500! Actually, Bailey, who is so instrumental in my life, had won the Actors Theatre of Louisville playwriting contest with his play The Bridgehead the year before, and he sent my play in and it won the Actors Theatre of Louisville contest.
JB: And that was the first production?
HENLEY: That was the first production, and they were very adamant about it not having been produced anywhere. That's one sort of annoying thing to me about this. Plays are so much more special if they've never ever had a production, but I think you can really work on a play and make it better with each production. Anyway, that was the first place it was done.
JB: What was that like?
HENLEY: It was terrifying, number one. I remember not knowing what a cue light was because I'd never worked in a production that was high class enough to have a cue light. They kept saying, "Yeah, we'll do it with a cue light." And I was like, "Yeah, yeah, the cue light. What's the cue light?" But I had two glorious actresses in the parts of Lenny and Meg. Kathy Bates played the original Lenny and this wonderful actress, Susan Kingsley, played Meg and she was a genius at it. I don't know if I want to get into the ugliness of this, but the director's wife played Babe, and she wasn't as good as the others.
JB: What is it like when you go and you're involved in a production about which you have very definite ideas, and it isn't going entirely the way you want it to go?
HENLEY: It so depends on the production. The most glorious thing about working in the collaborative art is when you have somebody like Susan Kingsley or Kathy Bates who are better than your play. And you're just "Ahh." That is just extraordinary. You have a director that sees things in the play that you didn't envision and knows how to heighten them and move the rhythm of it and to cover up any faults and make all of the assets really glimmer. I'm very into the first production of the show. I love to see the rehearsals, to sit there throughout the entire rehearsal and hear it over and over because with repetition you can get a sense of what the rhythm of the lines is. When I first started, it was much harder because in the very first production of the play, I'm thinking, "I really don't know what is the director's fault, what's my fault, what's the actor's fault." It was very hard; they'd say, "Cut this" and I would say, "But I'm not certain that needs to be cut." Now I've gotten a lot clearer on how to sort that out, I think.
JB: And how do you sort all that out?
HENLEY: I have a lot of meetings in my living room and hear it again.
JB: In other words, today you'll go to rehearsal having a lot more ideas of how things should be, and how they should sound? With Crimes of the Heart, when you got to Louisville was that really the first time you had heard the play read?
HENLEY: I think I did have a reading at my house.
JB: But you hadn't worked on it?
HENLEY: I hadn't thought of the process, of somebody telling me to cut a line. I love to cut. My fault now is making my plays too short.
JB: Has that been a result of writing a lot of plays?
HENLEY: It's the result of writing plays and feeling the audience get restless. That to me is like "I want it to move. I want it to move!" Pace, you know. I don't want you looking restless. Because it's so excruciating when you're in the theatre and you can feel that "Why isn't this over?"
JB: Crimes of the Heart was such a success. It must have been difficult to write the next play. You had a lot to live up to at that point, didn't you?
HENLEY: When I went to Louisville, I had started on a new play, The Miss Firecracker Contest. That was always my inclination, to start on a new play before the other one gets done, because at least you'll have something to go back to if that play gets trashed. It took a long time for Crimes of the Heart to get on. It was done in Louisville and in Baltimore, and then in St. Louis. It was round and about before it was actually a big success, so I had time to work on other plays.
JB: Is Crimes of the Heart the play through which you got involved with Holly Hunter?
HENLEY: No. Holly auditioned for The Wake of Jamey Foster. There was a part of a seventeen-year-old orphan who's a burn victim, who's a romantic interest of one of the boys. It was so bizarre because Holly and I got stuck in an elevator; we were trapped in this elevator together at this very first meeting. So I thought, "Hmmm." I knew who she was because someone had said that this wonderful, wonderful actress was coming in, but I was too shy to talk very much. We got free. I loved her audition so much for The Wake that when we were replacing Mary Beth Hurt in the part of Meg on Broadway in Crimes of the Heart, I got her to do that, to be that replacement, but with the stipulation that when The Wake started she'd get out of Crimes of the Heart. So Crimes was the first play of mine she was in; then she was in The Wake.
JB: Some actors and actresses have a particular affinity to certain playwrights, and it seems to me that there's something about the way Holly Hunter presents herself on stage that makes her particularly good at the roles you write.
HENLEY: Absolutely. I'm really blessed.
JB: Have you ever written anything with her in mind?
HENLEY: Yes, I have. A play called Control Freaks. We were working at a theatre in Los Angeles together, the Met Theatre, and I wrote a play for her and three other actors and she ended up doing it in LA. She was wonderful. So that play I specifically wrote for her.
JB: Do you tend to do that often—write for specific actors or actresses?
HENLEY: Not really, no. Not generally.
JB: How would you describe your relationship with Holly Hunter? When she comes to the play, does she discuss the character with you a lot? Of is it more a matter of watching her and saying things to her through the director?
HENLEY: It kind of varies because we've worked together over so many years. She particularly likes to explore while she's working and not get a lot of feedback until she's reached the limits of her exploration. It's very fearless and sometimes very bad. That's another point about running a play with actors.
They'll risk being just terrible. Holly will come in with ideas that are just brilliant and she'll come in with this idea that makes no sense; she likes to really go with her instincts. Once she has those instincts in play, then you can shape more.
JB: Along with Holly Hunter, you've worked with some other tremendous actors over the course of your career, and you write so richly for actors. What do these great actors have in common in terms of making strong choices for your work?
HENLEY: That's a good question. I don't know. It's a deep, deep commitment and passion for investigating every facet of every moment. With Holly, it's the things that she'll do for the play, like learn to play the harp, learn to tap dance, learn to twirl a gun around, learn to play the piano.
JB: Have you ever dealt with actors, where in the end you know they're going to come up with something really, really good, but to get there you're going to have to let them do that kind of fearless exploration?
HENLEY: When we were doing Control Freaks, it was all about being out of control in rehearsals and then doing a play that is so utterly controlled. Every moment is basically choreographed, and then it explodes into this big mess—but it's a very thoughtful mess.
JB: I've heard playwrights and directors say that one of the talents of being a director and not simply a playwright at rehearsals is knowing that different actors work in different ways.
HENLEY: Yes, you have actors that are all over the board in how they've been trained and what they like and what they are used to or how they perform best.
JB: Do you speak to actors directly, or go through the director most of the time?
HENLEY: I'll speak to them directly if the director trusts me or if the director says, "What do you think of that?" Sometimes the director is so burned out talking to the actors, they'll say, "Now, Beth, what did you tell me?"
JB: Would you know in that situation if you had been given permission to talk to the actors or not?
HENLEY: Yes. I feel very much it's all sort of diplomatic and a sense of trust and deep respect. You can't just go in there and open your mouth until the cast and director feel comfortable with you.
JB: It took you a while to get away from the South, dramatically. But you have with the most recent plays not written as much about the South. What was the source of that change?
HENLEY: I guess, not living in the South. My first few plays took place in the South and even The Lucky Spot was in the thirties but in Louisiana. Then I moved further into the past into the Wyoming Territory for Abundance and then I just decided to thrust myself into the future and wrote Signature, which takes place in Los Angeles in 2052. Then I wrote Control Freaks, which is very much a Los Angeles play.
JB: You have said that one of the reasons you live in Los Angeles is because no one will bother you; everybody there is involved in film and so you can do your own thing and not feel you're competing with all the people in New York, where there are playwrights on every street corner.
HENLEY: Part of that is that New York has proved to be too much … for me to live and work [in]; I love New York so much. It's my favorite city but it's kind of nice to go back to Los Angeles and just not be inundated with what is the scene and what is hot or what is not. You're just left on your own in Los Angeles, and you can have a nicer place with a yard there
JB: You have also said that it's a little frustrating in LA because everything is film.
HENLEY: It's not a theatre town. It's film and television and that's—entertainment-wise—the heart of the city. Often people will be in plays to get into film and television; whereas, in Chicago or Seattle or New York, they're just in the plays because that's what their passion is.
JB: Do you feel that the people in LA support theatre? Are there audiences or do you find them so involved with film that theatre is a kind of secondary medium to them?
HENLEY: I tried to start a theatre in LA and failed miserably, but I was probably not meant to raise money.
JB: Are the theatres in LA supported pretty well? Do they get audiences?
HENLEY: The big places like the Taper do, but some of the smaller theatres, no.
JB: Is it frustrating? When you get your plays done, you don't usually get them done in LA, do you?
HENLEY: Not usually, although occasionally.
JB: Isn't it more likely to have a reading of a new play of yours in Washington or New York than in LA?
JB: Are playwrights treated badly in Hollywood when they write for films or are they being treated with more respect by producers and directors than they have been in the past?
HENLEY: Here's the thing you have to know about being a screenwriter. I love writing for the screen. I love that they pay you a lot of money. You get to meet fancy people and eat really good food. But here's the thing: what you do as a screenwriter is you sell your copyright. As a novelist, as a poet, as a playwright, you maintain your copyright. If you write a fabulous screenplay, they pay you this chunk of money; it's theirs, they own it. I've always emotionally tried to detach myself from my screen writing and just love doing it, enjoy doing it, and I try to do adaptations. I did write a couple of original screenplays, but I'd rather write plays. If you are a screenwriter, they can fire you at any moment, and the actors can change your dialogue. It's really a director's medium, where theatre is much more a writer's medium; in theatre, you have actor approval, you have director approval, you have not necessarily design approval, but at a point you do. They can't change anything, even stage directions, without your approval. Of course they have, I suspect; but at least not when you're on the premises!
JB: What was it like adapting Crimes of the Heart as a screenplay? Didn't you have to detach yourself a little from that, almost have to not be the playwright who wrote the original play?
HENLEY: That's a long story. I was working on Crimes of the Heart with Jonathan Demme, and they made us fly in from New York, to have a meeting where the producer told me I was the worst person to write this because I had written the play. So I tried to open it up, and I wrote a version of it and they said it was too much like the play. Jonathan Demme quit on principle because he didn't want to be the person to ruin this beautiful play. Then a couple of years later, I was in London and Bruce Beresford was hired to do Crimes of the Heart and I said, "They don't want me." He said, "Well, I want you and I told them I wanted you." And I read Demme's script and it veered too far from the play. I said, "Bruce, I got fired from it!" He said, "Oh, they don't know what they want." So I got rehired with Bruce Beresford who has brought a lot of plays to film. And he was lovely to work with and it was great; but it was on the verge of being catastrophic.
JB: It sounds like he had great respect for you as the writer of the play?
HENLEY: He's just a fun, smart guy who respects people; he wasn't afraid of any idea you had because he knows he's really smart. He's really experienced in what he's doing and he knows what he wants.
JB: And how much of that screenplay actually survived to be the screenplay of Crimes? Was the screenplay that survived pretty much the screenplay you wrote?
HENLEY: Very much, because he was very good as well. He wanted it short. He said, "Let's keep it short."
JB: But that's not always the case, is it?
JB: Don't you have the kind of horror stories about Hollywood that other playwrights tell?
HENLEY: My horror stories are the screenplays that didn't get made; you get frustrated with that, but you still get paid this enormous amount for them. I figure that helps me with my theatre work.
JB: Talk a little bit about your play, L-Play.
HENLEY: I couldn't think what to write for a play. I was really fragmented in my life and so I kept scribbling. It's really painful when you're trying to come up with an idea for a play. I decided I would write a play called L-Play, which would have twelve different scenes, twelve totally different characters, and twelve different theatrical styles because I was into exploring different styles. The only unifying factor is that the names of the scenes start with an "L." This was completely stupid! But I proceeded in the face of this stupidness and it was really fun because it was a bit like an exercise for me. It was struggling with the fragmented nature of reality, like who is real, Donald Duck or Bergman, of just the different realities that come together in the fragmented world. The Learner and the Lunatic are the only reoccurring characters.
JB: You have said that frequently you write plays about characters who express some part of yourself you wouldn't express any other way. Often, it's part of yourself you're afraid of or that you wouldn't go out out in public with on your own.
HENLEY: The girl, Ashby, in Am I Blue didn't get invited to the prom and she is all alone and feels isolated. I did have friends at that age, but what you fear is not having friends. You fear that part of you is not acceptable to be exposed and I think that's a lot of what I look for in my characters. I wonder what their greatest fear is and what their greatest dream is and what the teaching is between the two. Usually their fear is holding them back from their dream, and their dream is giving them hope to fight against their fear. A lot of what I like to write about are things I'm confused about. When I was younger I kept thinking that I needed to write an important play, that I needed to help people understand something and improve the world and enlighten people—except I didn't know anything. This was the big problem. And then I read where Ionesco said: "Oh, I just like to write about my own confusion." I said, "Well, I can do that; I'm certainly confused." It was like this weight was lifted. I don't have to solve anything because there is nothing to solve. It's all a big mystery and if you can express the misery and the confusion truthfully, that might be something worth looking at.
JB: Too often we're looking for answers in plays when plays are really asking you to think. They're not actually looking to solve problems for you.
HENLEY: People say, "How do you want the audience to respond to your play." And I say, "As individuals!" I would feel horrible if everyone felt the same thing by the end of the day, and didn't have particular thoughts, particular notions, if some people weren't upset about something and some people enthralled by something.
JB: How do you start a play?
HENLEY: I think if you're any good you're aware of the notion that you can't start where you want to. I use a ton of notebooks. I write what is the theme and then I write all sorts of different themes; some of them never end up being the theme at all, and then I have images that I see. I see some stage images; like for Crimes of the Heart, I see a knife cutting into a lemon. I see there is a birthday cake. I'm not sure whose birthday it is.
Or I see somebody roped; somebody's going to hang themselves, but I don't know if they're going to live or not. Images. I do images. I do theme. I do the style, and I've really gotten to be much more cognizant about the style. I have a section in my notebook just called dialogue, things I've heard that are intriguing to me, or read, that might go in this play. And then, there's dialogue for this particular character—what do they do, what is their dream, and what are their feelings? There's preparation before you do it; getting to page one is quite a mess and takes, for me, the most time and is the hardest because they're not talking to you yet. You're kind of planting the seeds so they will talk. When they start talking, don't edit them for a while; let them talk.
JB: Do you know where a play is going when you start?
HENLEY: No. That's the scariest thing and the most thrilling.
JB: In other words, when you saw that birthday cake, you had no idea that was the end of the play?
HENLEY: No, I didn't know that was the end of the play. I did know by the time I got to the third act that Babe was going to try and kill herself, but I didn't know that she wasn't going to kill herself up until the moment she didn't. I thought, "No, it's going to be a tragedy. I thought it was a comedy, but I guess it's going to be a tragedy because it's a tragedy when a character kills himself." And then it turned. I always think that although this is very frustrating for the writer, it's really key to writing something good because if you don't know where it's going, that means the audience doesn't know where it's going either. You have to be clever enough to take it to a wonderful authentic place by just letting the characters tell you where they need to go.
JB: When you start, do you know the general subject matter?
HENLEY: Usually, but in the play I'm writing now, as well as in Exposed, it wasn't that clear. It became clear in Exposed that this is all taking place in a winter solstice, the darkest night of the year. The play I'm working on now I call The Men's Play because all I knew was I wanted to write a play about men because I don't understand men anyhow.
JB: When you write a play, do you have a specific message you want your reader to get from it? What do you want people to get from Crimes of the Heart?
HENLEY: When I write a play, I don't—since I have no idea what the play's going to be—have a message in mind. But in looking at Crimes of the Heart, I can say that my impression as a theatregoer would be that it is a play about these three sisters coming to grips with a lot that happened in their past that left them stunted in different ways and going on from there in the final moment of the play. That's pretty bad, but that's why I'm not a theatre critic!
JB: Talk a little bit about the role of Barnette in that play. If you were there while an actor was doing the part, what would you say to him?
HENLEY: I would say, "Don't err on going too sweet." He's very, very committed to winning this case. He's very fiery and there's also a rage in him. Barnette's often wrongly done as a sweet old Southern boy, and it's kind of icky.
JB: How much do you feel like you consciously engage with work from prior literary traditions? You mentioned that Crimes of the Heart is based on Three Sisters, and I was wondering if you intentionally wrote it that way or not.
HENLEY: I think I probably did it subliminally with Crimes of the Heart. In fact, I know I did since I love Three Sisters so much and I'd rehearsed it over and over again, seeking the part of Irina. It was in my subconscious. Although I must admit that more recently in the play Impossible Marriage, I remember deliberately wanting to steal from Oscar Wilde. I went and read everything he wrote and I said, "Give me some of that and some of that. Sprinkle it on me." So I don't know. It's not usually very conscious, but it can be.
JB: What other kinds of dramatic literature influence you?
HENLEY: This is going to sound so boring, but Shakespeare. I've taken five years of Shakespeare class and … the more I just want to know him.
JB: What have you, as a playwright, learned from Shakespeare?
HENLEY: Shakespeare is one of those people, like Magic Johnson in basketball. You can't learn really because what they do is too superior to what humans can do. You just sit back in awe. Some playwrights you can read and kind of go, "Oh, here's how they do that." But Shakespeare … how'd he write that? Oh, it's so humbling.
JB: Are any of your characters based on people you know—or knew?
HENLEY: Sometimes they evolved from a couple of people I know. A couple of times I've said that person is so appealing to me I'm going to write a character just like them. That's only happened a couple of times. But by the time the character comes out in the play, it's no longer the person at all. People say, "I'm Babe aren't I?" And I say, "We just met!"
Source: Jackson R. Bryer, "Expressing ‘the Misery and Confusion Truthfully’: An Interview with Beth Henley," in American Drama, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter 2005, p. 87.
In the following essay, Scholem presents a positive review of Henley's Impossible Marriage, calling it "the funniest, frothiest, finest comedy to open in these parts for some time."
It's impossible to keep a straight face watching Beth Henley's Impossible Marriage at Broadway's Roundabout Theatre.
That's because it is the funniest, frothiest, finest comedy to open in these parts for some time. Its characters are deliciously overwrought, over dramatic, over magnified and over the edge.
Set on a country estate outside of Savannah, Henley's Impossible Marriage hones in on the impending wedding of Pandora Kingsley (Gretchen Cleevely) and Edvard Lunt (Christopher McCann). Pandora's sister, Floral (Holly Hunter), her mother Kandall Kingsley (Lois Smith) and everybody in the audience agree that this marriage will be the mismatch of the ages.
It seems Pandora, a silly, childish screwball, who wants to be married in a fairy gown with big blue wings, is attracted to Edvard, an author, because he wrote her into one of his books, making her somewhat of a legend. Floral, her older sister, the very pregnant and very funny Holly Hunter, feels he is "repulsive" and "a hairy old goat" to boot.
While Lois Smith's mother Kandall, who can convulse an audience with a single word, pleads with Pandora not to marry a man who is "twice her age" and a myopic philanderer who divorced his wife of 23 years, leaving her and his children.
Finally, she points out, he has a ponytail and lacks character. Pandora's rejoinder is, "His character's not important; he's an artist." After all, this is a girl who refused to flush away her dead rotting pet fish because it "hadn't done anything wrong."
If this goofy, bigger-than-life Southern family is a looney tunes version of Tennesee Williams or a thoroughly fouled-up Faulkner, some of the people orbiting around them are downright Chekovian.
Take Sidney Lunt, Edvard's son, whom he does not recognize. Or Daniel London, who plays the role with just enough neurosis to be believable as a withdrawn worry wart, who looks as though he just wandered in from The Cherry Orchard. He announces upon entering that his mother plans to kill herself by jumping from the attic if her father marries Pandora.
Henley's bigger-than-life characters delight us because, though they are tragic, unpredictable and out of sinc, we need not take any of them seriously. Even if we wanted to it would be impossible. After all, here we have Floral telling Sidney to go "get a pistol to kill your father with and bring me more muffins." Floral's very proper, half crazy mother is much more upset about her eating wedding cake with her hands than the fact that her about-to-give-birth-daughter chooses to roll down muddy hills in her weakened condition.
But then the quirky Floral, beautifully played as a purposely exaggerated eccentric by Holly Hunter, has troubles of her own. Although she is so pregnant she "could accommodate a circus under this tent" (of a dress), she has never had sex with her handsome, but sappy, syrupy, adoring husband Jonsey (the preening Jon Tenney).
Keep your eye on the seemingly straight laced Rev. Jonathan Larence whom Hunter insists "is quite incapable of seducing a harlot in Dante's Inferno."
Christopher McCann does a marvelous, high camp rendition of the improbable, inappropriate, over aged groom, Edvard Lunt, and yet much like the other six gifted actors in Ms. Henley's comedic romp, manages to apply a residue of poignancy to the play's merriment. Just enough for us to care about these people, even as we laugh at them.
Source: Richard Scholem, "Henley's Impossible Marriage Impossibly Delightful," in Long Island Business News, Vol. 45, No. 45, November 6, 1998, p. 38.
Ancona, Francesco Aristide, "Hope Sinks: Pandora, Eve and the Obsession of Ahab," in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, March 2003, pp. 15-22.
"Beth Henley," in Contemporary Dramatists, 6th ed., St. James Press, 1999.
Brantley, Ben, Review of Impossible Marriage, in the New York Times, October 23, 1998.
Bryer, Jackson R., "Expressing ‘The Misery and Confusion Truthfully’: An Interview with Beth Henley," in American Drama, Winter 2005.
Cumberlege, Geoffrey, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1941, rev. ed., 1954, p. 272.
Harris, Mark, Review of Impossible Marriage, in Entertainment Weekly, October 23, 1998, p. 68.
Henley, Beth, Impossible Marriage, Dramatists Play Service, 1999.
Isherwood, Charles, Review of Impossible Marriage, in Variety, Vol. 372, No. 10, October 19, 1998, p. 84.
Renner, Pamela, "The Mellowing of ‘Miss Firecracker’: Beth Henley—and Her Impetuous Characters—Are Undergoing Transformations," in American Theatre, Vol. 15, No. 9, November 1998, p. 18.
Scheck, Frank, Review of Impossible Marriage, in the Hollywood Reporter, October 19, 1998, p. 7.
Scholem, Richard, "Henley's Impossible Marriage Impossibly Delightful," in the Long Island Business News, Vol. 45, No. 45, November 6, 1998, p. 38A.
Andreach, Robert J., Understanding Beth Henley, University of South Carolina Press, 2006.
This book is an invaluable critical overview of Henley's plays, taken as a unified whole. Andreach discusses Impossible Marriage in considerable detail, linking it thematically and imagistically with Henley's other work.
Ayers, Edward L., and Bradley C. Mittendorf, eds., The Oxford Book of the American South: Testimony, Memory, and Fiction, Oxford University Press, 1998.
This is an ambitious compilation of fiction and nonfiction writings about the American South. Selections include diaries, memoirs, letters, and essays from over fifty writers from the colonial period to the present. Featured authors include Olaudah Equiano, Charles W. Chesnutt, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Martin Luther King Jr., Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou.
Fesmire, Julia, ed., Beth Henley: A Casebook, Routledge, 2002.
This compilation of critical essays on Henley's plays is a useful introduction to Henley's work. It includes discussions of Impossible Marriage, of the major literary and cultural influences on Henley, and of film adaptations of her plays.
Ruppersburg, Hugh, ed., Georgia Voices: Nonfiction, University of Georgia Press, 1994.
This book is the second volume of a three-volume anthology of Georgia's literary heritage. It features nonfiction writings by native Georgians or long-term Georgia residents about key features of Southern life. Among the writers featured are James Oglethorpe, Henry Grady, Erskine Caldwell, Martin Luther King Jr., Alice Walker, Jimmy Carter, and Cherokee and Creek Native Americans.